College vs. Trade School



Our generation was raised with the idea that the path to a successful career and financial stability includes a degree from an accredited four-year university. A college degree not only symbolized a higher level of education, but it also meant a better job, job stability, and higher wages for the student who worked hard for it. While this may have been true before, nowadays college graduates are having difficulties securing employment, wage growth has suffered, students are leaving college with hefty amounts of debt, and more often than not they are not using the degrees they pay for. Is college still a good path to success or are there other avenues?

Pursuing a higher level of education is always a good idea, but college isn’t the only path to a successful career. For students and parents in the planning process, it’s important to consider all of your options and compare the cost vs. benefit. Trade school offers students the ability to acquire specialized skills that can lead to successful careers in less time and at a lower cost. Let’s see how the two compare.


One major factor when choosing between a university and trade school is cost. The increasing cost of a college education is leaving graduates with a substantial amount of debt post-college. As a result, many are forced to take jobs unrelated to their course of study in order to cover that debt and living expenses. Mounting debt might seem like a good reason to reconsider college, but it’s also important to consider the long term benefit. A study performed by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that “The average rate of return for a bachelor’s degree has edged down slightly in recent years due to rising costs, but remains high at around 14 percent.” This study suggests that in the long run, college can be a good investment and worth the price tag.

In terms of cost, trade school seems more appealing. According to, “…completing an average bachelor’s degree program costs students $127,000. On the flip side, the average cost for a trade school degree is only $33,000…”. Not only are grads able to begin life after school more financially stable, but they gain two more years of wages because trade school programs can be completed in half the time. To be able to save time and money is appealing, but it’s also important to research the field and income ranges associated with the intended line of work because long term gain may not match that of a degree-holding worker.


When competing for a position, those with a degree have an edge over non-degree applicants and regardless of what that degree is in, that advantage is permanent. This is extremely valuable, but it isn’t self-dependent. According to a study performed by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), “The unemployment rate among young college graduates is at pre-recession levels, but it is still higher than the full-employment economy of 2000.” College graduates are having difficulty finding employment after they graduate- even with a degree. This could be due to many factors, but there is no guarantee of employment or job stability.

As the demand for trade work has increased, workers in these fields are better able to secure work with the added advantage of less competition. The downside to this is your qualifications won’t extend past your course of study at the vocational school. If a student decides to change their profession, that may require them to seek additional schooling or have to compete with degree-holding applicants for positions.


The EPI study also revealed, “From 1989 to 2019, average wages of young college graduates grew only 13.9 percent in total. Without the few years of strong growth in the tight labor market of the late 1990s and 2000, wages would be no higher today than they were in 1989.” This is a grim statistic for those investing large sums of money in their education. Again, the guarantee of better wages no longer exists; however, in comparison to those with high school diplomas, college graduates still make more.With trade labor in high demand, wages seem to be increasing. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has projected a “faster-than-average employment growth” in the construction industry through 2026, with its median annual wage of $45,820 in 2017 surpassing the $37,690 median wage for all industries. There are many fields in which trade school graduates can study and earn equal to or more than those with degrees, but a disadvantage occurs when career growth can be halted on account of the absence of a degree.


So College or Trade School?
The right path for a student depends on multiple factors such as their financial capability, personal interests/goals, and job availability within their selected course of study. Although we’ve all been raised with the idea that college is the only path to success and financial stability, it’s important to consider that workforce needs have changed and there are different paths to success- so explore them all!


By Pamela Miller

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